Opinionista Judith February 17 June 2020

Fighting Covid-19: We need clear and open communication from our government

The urgency needs to return to the government’s overall strategy and communication. We simply cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal at this most dangerous point in the pandemic’s spread.

We remember June 16 and the sacrifices made for our collective freedom. This year, we did so amidst a global pandemic and the renewed fight for justice and equality all around the world.

Here in South Africa, we also looked back this past week on the decade since we hosted the Fifa World Cup. What a time that was to be alive.

In almost typically South African fashion, the event was jarring given the rot of the Zuma presidency and the deep levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment. The same government so incapable of delivering basic services to the poorest in our society, with the gaze of the world on it, could suddenly build large stadiums at speed. Suddenly too we were able to provide mass transportation which was safe and efficient.

In the background, the vuvuzelas blared.

South Africans love a party, after all. This one was replete with fan parks, flags and love on the streets. Like all good parties, it eventually came to an end and we were left with the bill. But South Africans being who we are, we would probably do it all over again if given the opportunity.

A lot can happen in a decade.

Here we are in 2020 facing a pandemic of an unprecedented kind.  We have a different president but most of the same intractable problems.

It’s been more than three weeks since President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, we understand that there have been several consultations with various sectors, desperate to reopen.

It’s also more than 100 days since South Africa reported its first Covid-positive case. As of Tuesday 16 June, 1,568 people had died, and 73,533 people had tested positive for Covid-19.

Generally speaking, Ramaphosa and his Cabinet colleagues had the country’s support when he announced the hard lockdown in late March. Even during its extension, we understood the need to buy time to prepare for the inevitability of a spike in infections. This was particularly so as South Africa approached winter and with so many living with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

The internal logic of the rules must be consistent if there is to be a general societal commitment to dealing with the virus.

Yet, almost inexplicably, in late May Ramaphosa announced that churches would reopen for 50 worshippers at a time. He appealed to faith leaders to assist the government in ensuring that the restrictions are adhered to. That was a turning point of sorts.

It seemed then that a kind of inconsistency of logic was informing the risk-adjusted strategy of reopening the economy and society. After all, evidence from around the world indicates that the reopening of churches has had a direct impact on the increase in infection rates. Questions then arose more frequently than before: for instance, if churches can reopen, why should families not visit each other, why should personal care salons, following hygiene protocols, not reopen and so on? The internal logic of the rules must be consistent if there is to be a general societal commitment to dealing with the virus.

In Western Cape, currently the epicentre of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in the number of trauma unit beds needed on weekends. This has largely been the direct result of the alcohol ban being lifted. Yet, the tobacco ban remains in place. The courts have now been asked to intervene in the tobacco matter. This has become an intense and personal battle between the industry and the minister of Cogta, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. In addition, the courts have also been called upon to scrutinise the powers of the National Coronavirus Command Council of Cabinet as well as the rationality of certain Disaster Management Regulations. Unfathomable too is that the courts had to intervene in securing justice for Collins Khosa. A democratic government should hang its head in shame that Khosa’s family was compelled to approach the Pretoria High Court for some semblance of accountability for his death during lockdown. 

But shame is a rare commodity in our politics. 

We live in a constitutional democracy and so challenges before our courts are part and parcel of democratic governance. Approaching the courts should, however, not become the norm even as we have seen the courts as the final bulwark against a government determined to undermine the rule of law at every turn during the Zuma years.

And so, at the unbanning of churches and the move to Level 3, it seemed as if something slipped. 

Some ministers unhelpfully insert themselves into the discussion from time to time – think Fikile Mbalula and Bheki Cele. Apart from the indefatigable Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, the urgency amongst his colleagues seems to have dissipated. 

Inconsistent government messaging has not helped this general sense of being adrift. This past week, the Minister of Small Business, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, declared government was “ready” to reopen hair salons when she said:

“Already, when the president announced the movement to Level 3, he also announced what he called the advanced Level 3, which will include sit-down restaurants and also the opening up of personal care services.”

The problem is that the Employers Organisation for Hairdressing, Cosmetology and Beauty (EOHCB) for instance had had no communication from government in this regard. It is also unclear quite what “advanced Level 3” is. Consistency and logic matter when livelihoods are at stake – as does clarity.

Aside from the lack of clarity, carelessness has crept into our dealing with this deadly virus. This inattention can be seen all around us in the conduct of South Africans and also in the level of urgency, which seems to have seeped away from government communication on the issue.

Some ministers unhelpfully insert themselves into the discussion from time to time – think Fikile Mbalula and Bheki Cele. Apart from the indefatigable Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, the urgency amongst his colleagues seems to have dissipated. 

As ever, clear communication is everything.

We have been urged to wear masks, sanitise and practise social distancing. Yet, the recklessness is pervasive as the infection rate increases. Perhaps it was best encapsulated in the social media clip of a man who had queued for alcohol on 1 June. Once procured, he drank straight out of the bottle on his way out of the shop. 

Traffic lights have been regularly rammed out of the ground thanks to drunken driving, people in taxis are seen without masks, workers are seen sitting in groups outside shopping malls during their tea breaks, only to slip masks on when re-entering.  Runners are often spotted without masks and different retail stores waft between strict and loose compliance.

The public education aspect of dealing with the pandemic was always going to be difficult in a country as disparate as ours. This week Mkhize called for a “grassroots” fight against the virus as he launched the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Social Behavioural Change. It includes faith-based organisations, trade unions and civil society. 

The reopening of large swathes of the economy should not signal that the worst is over. Ironically, this seems to be the case. 

“The fight against Covid-19 is going to be won at home, in a church, in a taxi, on the streets, in a restaurant… and in every part of our social lives. It is not about whether there is a curfew or there is a policeman watching your movements. This is now about every South African taking the fight on,” Mkhize said.

It took a while for the government to get to this point. It skipped a beat right at the start with the failure to include community workers and local leaders as they attempted to educate citizens about the dangers of the virus. Public information campaigns have been too little too late and not as pervasive in all areas as they ought to be. The “top-down” approach so loved by our inefficient state simply increases citizens’ scepticism and also provides ample opportunities for fed-up citizens to breach regulations.

The persistent messaging that now has to come from the government is that the pandemic is not yet at its peak and it is deadly and dangerous. But, it needs to be more proactive in partnering with communities. Mkhize’s MAC is a first step. Government’s focus should now also be a far-reaching, single-minded 11-language campaign to educate people about this virus. It should reach everyone rich and poor, young and old.

The reopening of large swathes of the economy should not signal that the worst is over. Ironically, this seems to be the case. 

The worst is coming in fact and wide-scale public education and benevolent “policing” in key areas such as taxi ranks, and spot checks at workplaces to ensure that protocols are being followed should be the order of the day.

The urgency needs to return to the government’s overall strategy and communication. We simply cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal at this most dangerous point in the pandemic’s spread.  

It is also time for the government to communicate regarding its current approach to the pandemic. The abandonment of good sense and science came along with the reopening of churches. Now it feels as if we are in one court challenge and one bureaucratic “fix” after the other and the approach feels haphazard. This may or may not be the case but we need to understand the government’s latest thinking on the lockdown.

What we see from the outside looking in is bureaucratic-speak about adherence to lockdown Level 3, yet the reality on the streets is that adherence is predictably patchy. When the government’s internal logic falters, then it becomes very difficult to manage a pandemic of this kind.

One hopes the next government communication will explain the decision-making process where sectors remain closed. There are some sectors where reopening is obviously problematic, such as travel and most of the tourism sector, sadly. Yet the closure of other sectors is not as clear-cut and so the rationale needs to be communicated lucidly.

The urgency needs to return to the government’s overall strategy and communication. We simply cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal at this most dangerous point in the pandemic’s spread.  

It is, of course, our collective responsibility to deal with the pandemic and we do not ask for perfect government, only for accountability, consistency and openness during a time of global disease and unease. DM

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